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Maryland Gov. Hogan vetoes bill eliminating life-without-parole sentences for juveniles

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday vetoed a bill that abolishes life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders, setting up an override vote in the final days of the annual General Assembly session.

Democratic leaders vowed to overturn the veto before their planned adjournment on Monday.

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The Republican governor vetoed the Juvenile Restoration Act, a bill that would eliminate sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder or rape. It also would allow prisoners convicted as juveniles to petition a judge to be released if they’ve served at least 20 years.

The legislation also would waive mandatory minimum prison sentences for juveniles charged in adult court, allowing judges to consider more lenient sentences for young people.

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Lawmakers and advocates heralded the bill as an opportunity to give young offenders a second chance. They argued that teens can mature dramatically as they age and receive treatment for the trauma and abuse that often precedes criminal activity.

But Hogan argued in a letter Thursday to lawmakers that the most heinous crimes — first-degree murder, first-degree rape and certain gun crimes — deserve strict punishments.

“These are serious crimes that require the most serious of consequences, which is why a judge or jury sentences the individual to a lengthy determinate sentence, life imprisonment, or life imprisonment without parole,” the governor wrote.

Hogan also said that allowing prisoners to petition a judge for release “would further contribute to the re-traumatization of the victims of these heinous crimes.” He said victims who opposed a release would have to “subject themselves to living through the nightmare once again” by returning to court.

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Hogan also vetoed a bill that would expand when workers on state-funded construction projects must be paid a prevailing wage. The amount is calculated based on what private-sector workers are paid for the same work in the same area.

The bills were among several that lawmakers passed and sent to the governor early enough to give themselves time for any necessary override votes.

“These two bills bring increased fairness to our procurement and criminal justice systems,” Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said in a statement. “I am confident the General Assembly will override these vetoes before we adjourn.”

Also Thursday, Hogan said he would allow bills involving the state’s unemployment system and its elections to become law without his signature.

The elections bills evolved from several measures taken during the coronavirus pandemic to increase voting amid public health measures to control the spread of the disease. Greater access to early voting and voting by mail were popular with Marylanders, who cast ballots using those methods in record numbers last year.

A bill on early voting changes a population formula used to determine how many voting centers are required in each county. It will result in several counties having more centers. It also will require counties, when determining where to open centers, to consider factors such as how close they are to communities that have historically been disenfranchised and how accessible they are by public transit.

Hogan expressed reservations about a bill that would create a permanent vote-by-mail list that voters could join, but he allowed it to go forward.

“A voter could move, and still be on this list for several years,” Hogan wrote. He said the benefit of making voting easier for some is “dramatically outweighed by the opportunity for errors and potential for fraud.”

The package of unemployment bills is aimed at preventing the system from being overwhelmed again in a future recession, as it was during the coronavirus pandemic, and to help businesses pay their share of the costs of the program.

The legislation will require the state to develop a crisis plan for any future surge in joblessness, connect unemployed workers with low-cost health insurance, and allow them to pick up more temporary work before unemployment payments are reduced. Currently, workers see their unemployment payments reduced when they earn $50; the bill will increase that to $200 during the current state of emergency.

When hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Marylanders applied for benefits at the start of the pandemic last spring, many for the first time, the state’s systems buckled. Phone calls to the Department of Labor rang and rang and rang. Emails went unanswered. A clunky online application system flummoxed some applicants.

“Nobody was prepared for what happened, for the onslaught,” said Del. Ned Carey, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who jointly leads an unemployment committee in the legislature.

Carey, like many lawmakers, was besieged with requests for help from constituents who struggled to navigate the system or went months without payments.

“We’re just trying to help the people of Maryland who are at the bottom of the hill and trying to get back up — and by not being able to get ahold of the labor department in many instances, it’s been hard,” said Sen. Katherine Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat who co-chairs the unemployment committee.

The new laws aren’t a “magic wand,” Klausmeier said, but they attempt to address many problems.

Earlier in the session, lawmakers approved $1,000 payments to Marylanders stuck in unemployment adjudication and set aside money to hire more unemployment case workers.

Hogan did not explain why he would allow the bills to become law without his signature.

Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson did not testify during hearings on the bills and her department did not offer any written testimony or position on the bills.

Robinson, in an interview, defended the state, saying it transitioned to a new computer system mid-pandemic, increased staffing and cut down a backlog of applicants.

Robinson and her staff also had to implement programs that were newly created and repeatedly changed by the federal government, such as allowing freelance and contract workers to receive benefits for the first time.

From March 2020 through March 2021, more than 700,000 people have received unemployment benefits in Maryland at one point or another, according to the Maryland Department of Labor. The peak came in July, when more than 309,000 people received benefits.

“This is the highest volume in the insurance program in the history of the program,” Robinson said.

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